Tom Ewing, head of communications at System1, subjected himself to an unenviable afternoon of mostly unremarkable advertising
“You don’t measure creativity,” P&G marketing supremo Marc Pritchard said at Cannes in June, “You feel creativity.”
Which ads was Pritchard talking about? The ads the marketing industry loves - bold ideas like Tide’s ‘It’s A Tide Ad’, a post-modern genre shuffle that ambushed the Super Bowl. Or Always’ ‘Like A Girl’, which won awards and helped kickstart the ‘brand purpose’ communications trend.
But not, for instance, the ad for Calgon where an engineer squeezes greasy silt from a washing machine pipe. Or the ad for Buy2LetCars where an astonished woman rewinds a video three times because she can’t believe the “average return of 11%”. Or the ad for Benecol where a cheery voiceover lady talks at you like you’re a five year old: “Blend. And Pour. To make your food do more.”
When it comes to watching those ads, Pritchard is only half right. You certainly do feel something. But it’s not creativity. Anger, maybe? Contempt? Grinding, endless, boredom? Or a creeping suspicion that while everyone in the ad industry talks about disruption and change and Generation Z, the basic coin of their realm – the short TV spot – feels like it hasn’t changed for thirty years.
If the campaigns celebrated at Cannes are prime fillet cuts of free-range creativity, this stuff is the chlorine-washed pink slime of marketing, reformed into 20- and 30-second bites. It’s a slurry of condescending voiceover, half-hearted ideas, generic shots of people and packs going through the motions - literally, in the case of Imodium’s ‘Restore Your Rhythm’.
What can we learn from the ads nobody celebrates? Recently the ad agency BBH published a widely acclaimed blog post, The Wrong And The Shit Of It
, calling out ‘success bias’ in advertising. Can we really learn what works just by looking at the good stuff, it asked. What about the campaigns that never get entered for awards; that barely make it onto YouTube, let alone ‘go viral’. Shouldn’t we also look at the crap?
So, I did. I sat down one afternoon, took five of the major advertising categories, from cars to consumer goods, and watched every new ad from them to make it onto British TV in June. More than 180 commercials, from Beats by Dre to Benadryl, from Apple to Amigoloans. I watched them all, one after another, to try and get a truer picture of what advertising looks like right now.
It’s not a pretty one. Most ads are very bad. The company I work for – marketing services firm System1 Research – supplied me not just with the 185 ads but with test data on each, a 1-to-5 star rating based on ordinary people’s emotional reaction to each commercial. The more intensely and positively people responded to an ad, the higher its rating.
The scale is designed so that it’s not easy to hit 5 stars. The kind of ads which do are the sort the industry dines out on for years afterwards – Cadbury’s ‘Gorilla’ for Dairy Milk, or John Lewis’ ‘Monty The Penguin’. So how many of my 185 ads got 5 Stars? None.
In fact, more than half the ads got 1 Star, the lowest score. People saw them and felt precisely nothing – or worse, felt angry, disgusted, or contemptuous. But mainly they were just bored.
I arranged my ad viewing odyssey with boredom as its guiding principle. The least emotional ad on the TV in June – you’ll be forgiven for not remembering it – was a ten second spot for Fischer, who make wall heaters. I started there, sorted the ads from the one people felt least about up, experiencing a journey from advertising’s doldrums to its peaks of rage, disgust, or very occasionally joy. Here’s what I saw on the way.
RADIO REJECTS: We live in an era where multiple screens demand our attention. A lot of ads – the ones with the least emotional response, good or bad – seem to have given up trying to win this fight. Their visuals are utterly basic, an afterthought: maybe a product or two, or people standing around talking about it. The content is all in the voiceover – this is radio on the TV. Fischer Heaters was a good example – it’s a wall heater; they show a wall heater; they talk about the wall heater; the ad ends, as if it were never there. Insurance companies and health care ads are especially prone to this tell-don’t-show approach, as are regional shopping centres. You can see why, in some cases – are visuals really going to enhance a foot fungus remedy ad? In a way, this stuff isn’t playing the same game as more creative advertising – it’s cheap and designed to get an immediate response. So perhaps the fact nobody cares about it doesn’t matter.
SEMIOTIC SHRUGS: What do shampoo, perfume and car ads have in common? A deep-rooted conservatism. These are products which cling firmly to their category codes: swinging hair, or night drives on wet roads. Or the strange world of perfume ads, a parallel universe full of impossibly beautiful people in unlikely landscapes doing enigmatic things, a place it’s still cool to look like you’re in a rock video. At some point these clichés must have been effective, but not any more: for all the high budgets and big brand names, people look at a typical Dior, Audi, or Pantene ad and feel precisely nothing.
The predictable genres of most ads are the kind of thing Tide took the piss out of very effectively. But while it’s tempting for creatives to mock other ads, a wickedly tongue-in-cheek idea in the pitching room can fall flat in front of a real audience. It’s hard, for instance, to imagine that Alpecin shampoo’s ‘Fight For Your Hair’
(“ARE YOU A MAN? DO YOU HAVE HAIR?”) is meant entirely seriously. But so what? In the context of five other commercials in a two minute break, it’s just a bad ad.
Most of what I’ve seen so far is characterised by laziness – in-house teams or junior staff taking the paths of least resistance, churning stuff out that meets somebody’s expectations of what an ad is. But there are a few ads which are obviously trying very hard to be creative, quirky and do something different, and only fail because, well, people just don’t like them. If you were one of the World Cup viewers baffled by Apple’s ‘Story Of An Artist’
campaign – the one with the song by cult indie hero Daniel Johnston which sounds like a man-child gurgling into a dictaphone – then you weren’t alone: it tested atrociously. Apple are a $1 trillion company – it’s clear their ads don’t harm them. But I’d bet that one in particular isn’t helping much either. Into this category also fall ads which aim to look edgy or street-smart – moody screwface executions like Beats By Dre’s dour World Cup campaign, which was a turn off even when it starred England’s darling of Russia 2018, Harry Kane.
We’re now at the point where people are feeling something more than nothing about the adverts – which is a step in the right direction. There were a number of campaigns launched which you might call near-misses, emotionally. They had an identifiable idea and consistent execution. The result, generally, were 2-star ads. They made people smile, but not quite enough. They built a world around the brand, it just wasn’t a very exciting one. Online shopping portal Wish fell into this bracket, with its ads showing what footballers got up to who weren’t at the World Cup. As did cider brand Thatcher’s, gently mocking the authentic pretensions of other drinks brands. Their ads
were… nice. And that’s all.
GHASTLY GUILT-TRIPS: Not every emotion that advertising leaves you with is positive. Charity ads, for instance, particularly in the text-£3 era, often want to use shock tactics, disgust, fear and guilt to extract a response in the moment. From an activation perspective, there’s something to be said for this. From a brand-building perspective, though, it’s a bad move. I remember the donkey being tortured – hard to forget, frankly – but not the people aiming to rescue it. Better are ads like Save The Children’s spot celebrating a woman who worked to build infrastructure for her village with STC’s help – not only motivating a response but making you feel good about a charity, too.
SICKENING SCAMS: Negative emotion dominates the world of charity ads. It also rules in ads where people genuinely loathe the category. Hell hath no fury like somebody asked how they feel about a payday loan ad, or an online competition. The creativity here isn’t the point – people just don’t feel there should be ads for this stuff. The companies in question don’t give a monkey’s, of course. They know who their audience is and when they’re watching TV, and they’ll just keep on exploiting them.
PERFECTLY PLEASANT PRODUCTS:
And finally, the ads people liked. Rare enough, these – thirty or so 3- or 4-star commercials in the heap I watched. What do they do right? In a lot of cases, these were ads for chocolate, or ice cream, or condiments – foods people feel good about anyway. It’s hard – though far from impossible – for a brand to screw that goodwill up. Birds Eye, for instance, just showed Captain Birds Eye
, and the product, and the rest of the ad passed pleasantly by without ever tickling the brain. But so what? Birds Eye have spent decades building their mascot up – why not cash in on that? Some ads showed a little more creativity – Haagen-Dazs shot its ads for new ice cream flavours with the high-contrast lighting and rapid cuts of perfume commercials, giving them an expensive lustre which made people like them more. But sad to say, even the good ads often aren’t especially interesting – they just have better material to work with.
….AND AN AD I ACTUALLY LIKED
What was the best ad I saw? Well, there was one I thought was really good, for the archaic drink brand Vimto. It was playful and creative, based on a good gimmick, and actually made use of the medium and the presence of an audience. It asked us to close our eyes at the beginning of the ad – assuming, of course, that nobody would. A parade of comical and entertaining visuals followed, before we’re told to open our eyes again. Simple enough, not any kind of enduring classic, but it had a spark of imagination badly lacking in most of the ads I saw.
What did I learn from my advertising Odyssey? I’m in no hurry to do it again. But I felt I’d found something out. There’s a lot of angst in the advertising world about TV and its changing nature. It’s still the medium which reaches most people, most often – study after study shows that. But live viewing is in decline and there’s a perception the glory days of TV advertising are long gone.
Nothing I saw really challenged that idea. Too many of the ads on TV are insultingly lazy, condescending, and visibly the work of people who’d rather be doing something else. The adverts aren’t a great advert for advertising.
But the spend on TV advertising remains huge, and no other medium can do what it does in terms of breaking down the walls of narrow marketing segments and reaching a huge audience of possible customers. The reality of TV ads has contracted far faster than their potential.
Big, beloved, populist TV advertising is still being made – even if none of it was launched in the month I watched. Compare the Market’s Alexandr Orlov turns 10 in January – he’s taken his brand from nowhere to a strong position in a tight market, and it’s still one of TV’s biggest spenders. The AA’s Singing Baby may infuriate snobs, but it’s a 5-star ad that’s in line for an industry Effectiveness Award in October. Peter Kay and Warburton’s ‘Pride And Breadjudice’
proves that the ideal of the ad as entertainment still works.
So yes, TV advertising is bad. But it doesn’t have to be, and its wounds are partly self-inflicted. Can it do what Marc Pritchard says and make people feel the creativity again? It can, but it has to start by making them feel good.